Once again a late surge against a team from Michigan gave the Illini a chance to win. Unlike the toothless Michigan Wolverines, however, Michigan State had bite and held off Illinois down the stretch, 60-53.
Despite swiping four steals and outscoring the Spartans 12-8 in the final 4:10, Illinois (17-10, 7-7) could not quite muster enough to get over the top. Of course, before that flurry at the end of the game the Illini had hardly troubled MSU with offense. For the game Illinois shot just 28% (15/52) and made only a pair of threes (2/16). Coach John Groce attributed his team’s offensive struggles to a lack of cohesion and flow on the floor.
“Some of our shooting struggles were due to just missing shots, some of it was team needs to be more connected,” he said.
It’s hard to disagree with Groce’s assessment, but it’s also easy to see through his diplomacy. Sure, he has to hold his players accountable for the outcome and he can’t criticize the refereeing (unless he wants to donate some money to the Big Ten), but the reason there was no flow against MSU is in large part due to the refs blowing their whistles frantically in the second half. There were nine fouls called before the under-16 media timeout in the second half. Then Michigan State hit the double bonus at 8:21 and Illinois reached the double bonus at 8:12 (which means that, if not good, the refs were at least evenly distributing calls). It seemed like another 5 minutes of game time elapsed before back-to-back possessions without fouls transpired.
So many fouls may have helped Illinois if MSU was shooting like it did the last time these teams met, but coach Tom Izzo clearly took pains to correct his teams free throw shooting after that. The Spartans nailed 17 of 20 free throws on Sunday night, while the normally automatic Illini missed seven (21/28) and lost the battle at the charity stripe.
Losing the free throw battle was not what sunk the Illini, though. The loss boils down to not matching the physicality of Michigan State. Branden Dawson started the game shoving Illinois players around and finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds. Groce said he really played like a senior, which is what Illinois lacked from its big man, Nnanna Egwu, who grabbed just 3 rebounds and scored only 4 points. Rayvonte Rice played with strength, scoring 15 and grabbing boards while dishing out a team-high 3 assists, but the players around him did not mimic his show of strength.
Kendrick Nunn, in particular, continued to struggle. After playing a very big role, including leading the team, in Rice’s absence, the sophomore has somewhat affirmed the fears of many fans and taken a step back in the last few games. On Sunday he was 2 for 11 shooting with just 7 points and 2 rebounds. Getting him to click at the same time as Rice and Malcolm Hill (17 points) is most certainly the “connection” Groce wants to see in his best lineup.
A lot was made of this game as a pseudo play-in to the NCAA Tourney and a lot will continue to be made of it after the Illinois loss. While it may be a bit overwrought, the fact is Illinois is still looking for three wins with just two games left at home. Going to Iowa and Purdue for its last two road games does not make things easier for Illinois.
Groce remains an eternal optimist about his team, and after the gritty finish there’s no reason for him not to be. But he knows what losing can do when you’re striving so hard for a big goal.
“Tonight has nothing to do with Wednesday night [Iowa] unless you allow it. You got to play what’s in front of you that night,” he said.
With a little bit of offensive rhythm (and no refs bungling foul calls), Illinois can reach its goals. But if they don’t play what’s in front of them, the Illini will never get the connection Groce is looking for.